Monday, August 06, 2007


Fred from Traverse City asked about the word proactive, wondering if it meant “in favor of activity.” Let’s cover the meaning first, then get back to the prefix pro-, which has more than one meaning.

The word proactive was used by logotherapy’s founder, Victor Frankl,
in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. He meant it as an antonym to reactive. In his view, mentally healthy people do not simply react to external circumstances. Rather, they act according to what they see as meaningful in their lives no matter what is happening externally.

In non-clinical use, the word means taking initiative, anticipating events, and controlling a situation rather than indulging in a series of knee-jerk reactions.

Let’s get back to the prefix pro-. It can mean in favor of, as in the words pro-American, pro-business, or pro-war. But it can also mean towards the front (proclaim, propose), in anticipation of (proactive, provide), onward or forward (proceed, progress), or, especially in science, a precursor (pro-agonic, prohormone).

The lesson is this: don’t wed yourself to just one meaning for this prefix. Let context help you sort out which meaning is involved, or reach for that handy dictionary and look for the etymology.

SIDEBAR: How to be proactive

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